Today, as I write this, is Trinity Sunday 2020, but my imagination this morning is not caught up by the Lectionary gospel lesson of the day, the last mountain-top experience of the Eleven when, just before his Ascension, Jesus gives them the Great Commission.[1] Rather, my mind is taken to another mountain-top story, the one New Testament story Episcopalians can count on hearing twice each year at celebrations of the Holy Eucharist, that of the Transfiguration of Jesus. It is heard on the Feast of the Transfiguration, August 6, when Luke’s version is read at the mass:

Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” — not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.[2]

It is also always heard on the Last Sunday after Epiphany when, depending on the Lectionary year, it may be Luke’s story or the essentially similar versions from Matthew[3] or Mark.[4]

The church’s understanding of the meaning of the event is summarized in the Collect for Transfiguration found in The Book of Common Prayer: God “on the mount revealed to chosen witnesses [God’s] well-beloved Son, wonderfully transfigured, in raiment white and glistening.” The collect expresses the church’s hope that Christians “may by faith behold the King in his beauty.”[5] The Collect for the Last Sunday after Epiphany similar summarizes the event as the revelation of the Son’s “glory upon the holy mountain,” and expresses the hope that the faithful may be “changed into his likeness from glory to glory.”[6]

In other words, the Transfiguration is all about Jesus, and that’s true … except that nothing about Jesus is all about Jesus! It’s about Jesus to whose pattern his followers are to be conformed,[7] so it is about us, as well. And, as any story is about not only its protagonist but also about the “bit players” who surround him, it is about James and John and Peter, who represent us.

So the question for me is not what we learn from the Transfiguration about Jesus, but what we learn about and for ourselves from this mountain-top experience.

What started me thinking about this in the first week of June, mid-way between the two traditional in-church readings of the story, was a podcast of an episode of Krista Tippet’s “On Being”[8] program in which she and her guest, Davendra Banhart, read and discussed favorite passages from the book “When Things Fall Apart” by Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön.[9] I have not read the book (though I plan to).

Among the passages read were two paragraphs about mountain-top experiences and “bodhicitta” – an “awakening mind”[10] which engenders the altruistic intention to liberate all living beings from suffering[11] – which blew me away because, although written from a Buddhist perspective, I heard them (and now re-read them) as a way to understand the Transfiguration and the Crucifixion. The first is this:

Spiritual awakening is frequently described as a journey to the top of a mountain. We leave our attachments and our worldliness behind and slowly make our way to the top. At the peak we have transcended all pain. The only problem with this metaphor is that we leave all the others behind — our drunken brother, our schizophrenic sister, our tormented animals and friends. Their suffering continues, unrelieved by our personal escape.

This first paragraph describes the experience of James, John, and Peter on the Mount of the Transfiguration with Jesus, the experience that Jesus would not let Peter memorialize and try to perpetuate by building “booths.” Jesus knew that they had “left all the others behind,” and that they would have to return to the drunken brothers, the schizophrenic sisters, and all the others tormented and suffering. Indeed, that is exactly what they did when they came down the mountain to find other disciples (the rest of the Twelve and perhaps others) unable to cure the epileptic boy whose father had brought him to them:

When they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. When the whole crowd saw him, they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him. He asked them, ‘What are you arguing about with them?’ Someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.”[12]

My favorite artistic depiction of the Transfiguration is that by the High Renaissance painter Raphael. The top of Raphael’s painting portrays the glory and radiance described by the Evangelists Mark, Matthew, and Luke on the mountaintop, while the bottom shows what’s happening down below. Just as the top of Raphael’s painting captures the splendor of the Transfiguration, the bottom captures the tragic need and suffering of this man, of his son, of the disciples unable to cure the boy, of all those Pema Chödrön writes of as having been left behind. Raphael depicts the contrast between, and the essential connection of, the mountain and the valley, the differing experiences of human existence: joy and suffering, righteousness and sin, success and failure to the Incarnation.

God incarnate in Jesus Christ, fully God and fully human, celebrates with us on the mountaintops of triumph and weeps with us in the deep valleys of sorrow. Jesus the Son of God knows that any escape from “our attachments and our worldliness” is, at best, temporary, and that we must come down from the mountain top into those deep valleys. James, John, and Peter are favored in their participation in the Transfiguration event, brief and transitory though it is. They alone are selected by Jesus to accompany him on the mountain top while the others are denied the experience.

This has happened before and it will happen again. James and John and Peter are a sort of triumvirate of the community of apostles, an inner circle on whom Jesus seems to relay and with whom he “pals around.” Not only are they at the Transfiguration, they were present at the raising of Jairus’ daughter[13] and they will be at the top of Mount Olivet as Jesus prepares to enter Jerusalem.[14] They will also help to prepare for the Passover,[15] and they will be in the garden at Gethsemane.[16] They are the privileged among the apostles.

What they witness and experience, however, can be understood as a lesson in rejection of that privilege. In addition to their own favored status, they witness the presence of Moses and Elijah, traditionally understood to represent the Law and the Prophets, the established authority of Judaism, the epitome of cultural and religious power and privilege among the Jews. Jesus associated with them becomes “dazzling,” overwhelmingly bright but also overwhelmingly powerful. Jesus mission and the renewal of Judaism could have proceeded from there; the Transfigured Jesus could have come down from that mountain, entered Jerusalem, and taken over – bright, powerful, clearly divine, his entry into the city would have been truly triumphant.

Can you imagine what a scene that would have been? Jesus accompanied by the heavenly representatives of cultural and religious privilege, himself a descendant of David and thus representative of political privilege, and served by his trusted advisors – his steady Rock and the “sons of thunder” given places at his right and at his left – elevated from the life of working-class fishermen to a privileged status of leadership. Jerusalem and all of Judaea would have been his for the taking.

But Jesus had once rejected political power and does so again in proceeding along a different path to Jerusalem.  His Transfiguration on the mountain top and what comes after is, thus, a metaphor for the rejection of privilege; Jesus will not allow it to become institutionalized and thus systemic. It is, I admit, simplistic and facile to draw this analogy, but here it is: in the Transfiguration Jesus demonstrates and then abandons a dazzling white privilege. He could have it, but he chooses not to embrace or exercise it. He rejects it and he insists that Peter, James, and John eschew it, as well; they must join their brothers and sisters at the foot of the mountain and, together with them, accompany him on the journey into the insecurity, pain, and sacrifice of the Crucifixion to find what Pema Chödrön calls “the love that will not die.” It is only found when advantage and privilege are abandoned.

Pema Chödrön writes in the second paragraph discussed on the podcast:

In the process of discovering bodhicitta, the journey goes down, not up. It’s as if the mountain pointed toward the center of the earth instead of reaching into the sky. Instead of transcending the suffering of all creatures, we move toward the turbulence and doubt. We jump into it. We slide into it. We tiptoe into it. We move toward it however we can. We explore the reality and unpredictability of insecurity and pain, and we try not to push it away. If it takes years, if it takes lifetimes, we let it be as it is. At our own pace, without speed or aggression, we move down and down and down. With us move millions of others, our companions in awakening from fear. At the bottom we discover water, the healing water of bodhicitta. Right down there in the thick of things, we discover the love that will not die.

That love cannot be found on the mountain top of privilege, only by going to the valley floor of solidarity with the poor, the disadvantaged, and the suffering, and then going deeper, to the very core. It is there that we find, in Pema Chödrön’s words, “the healing water of bodhicitta,” or as Jesus put it, “water gushing up to eternal life.”[17]

In Christian tradition, the mount of Calvary is the “omphalos” or navel of the earth, the legendary center of the earth: the Cross is Chödrön’s “mountain pointed toward the center of the earth.” The Crucifixion is the descent into “turbulence and doubt,” into “the reality and unpredictability of insecurity and pain.” It is the ultimate rejection of privilege, and in it is revealed “the love that will not die,” the love which rose on Easter morning.

So, I want to suggest that contrary to the typical interpretation, the Transfiguration of Christ is not meant to be a powerful demonstration of Jesus’ divine nature or a manifestation of the glory which Christ possessed prior to his incarnation. Instead, it is an instruction to his disciples, then and now, to reject privilege of any sort. Love and joy are not found in privilege; they are found, as Pema Chödrön says, “in the thick of things.” The whole of the Transfiguration event, not just the vision of the Transfigured Christ, but also (and more importantly) what takes place afterward, teach that we, like Jesus, may not go up to joy until first we suffer pain, and may not enter into glory before we experience the truth of the Crucifixion. It is only by walking in the way of the cross, not by ascending to the mountain top, that we find the way of life and peace.[18]


Click on footnote numbers to link back to associated text.

[1] Matthew 28:16-20

[2] Luke 9:28-36

[3] Matthew 17:1-9

[4] Mark 9:2-9

[5] The Book of Common Prayer 1979, page 243.

[6] Ibid., page 217

[7] Romans 8:29

[8] On Being with Krista Tippett, Devendra Banhart, “When Things Fall Apart”, updated May 7, 2020, last visited June 7, 2020

[9] Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart, Anniversary Edition (Shambhala Publications, Boulder, CO: 2016)

[10] Ken McLeod, Bodhicitta Explained: A Bird’s-Eye View of the Bodhisattva Path, Tricycle (Summer 2018), last visited June 7, 2020

[11] Karma Lekshe Tsomo, Mother Teresa and the Bodhisattva Ideal: A Buddhist View, Claritas: Journal of Dialogue and Culture, Vol. 1, No. 1 (March 2012), 96, 101

[12] Mark 9:14-18

[13] Mark 5:37; Luke 8:51

[14] Mark 13:3

[15] Luke 22:8

[16] Matthew 26:37

[17] John 4:14

[18] A Collect for Fridays, The Book of Common Prayer 1979, page 99